Surviving a Mayday

On June 3, 2011, I was working my shift at Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department Engine 31. I was the Red Shift lieutenant at the time and had worked with the department for 17 years. At 1924 hours, the station fire tones sounded. We were being dispatched to a structure fire in our first-in area. The computer-aided dispatch printout read, “Smoke coming out of building.” We were out the door in less than a minute and arrived first on scene at 1927 hours. The nine minutes that followed ended with my calling a Mayday and diving headfirst out of a third-floor window.

Every time there is a close call or a line-of-duty death, we must learn from it. History has shown that there are always lessons to be learned and, in some cases, sound practices that can be reinforced. We can accomplish this internally with a thorough postincident analysis. We do our fellow firefighters absolutely no good if we shun this important process at the company and command levels. We must exercise humility, put aside pride, and quell fears of possible embarrassment for the betterment of our firefighters and the organization.

(1) Smoke conditions on arrival. <i>(Photos by Emmet McCarthy unless otherwise noted.)</i>
(1) Smoke conditions on arrival. (Photos by Emmet McCarthy unless otherwise noted.)

I wasted no time in starting my own postincident analysis. Sprawled out on the trauma room gurney, surrounded by nurses and doctors, I asked the emergency room staff for a pen and paper. They were happy to oblige, and I frantically began writing down significant details I could recall from the fire. I was worried that additional doses of narcotic pain medicine would cloud my memory.

I slept very little that night in the burn unit, recalling the incident over and over in my mind, worried about my pipe man, John, who was lying in a room across the hall from me. As his company officer, I was responsible for his safety and well-being-a responsibility I take very seriously. I was worried about him. He jumped, too. He had severe burns. The fact that he was hurt on my watch weighed heavily on my heart.

In the days and months that followed, I went over and over the incident in my mind. No one has ever done more Monday-morning quarterbacking than I. What could I have done differently? What were my major challenges? Did I make mistakes? Did I misread the fire? Did I fail as a company officer? What could have created a more favorable outcome? I will explore these questions, the lessons learned, and the sound practices that were reinforced later. My goal is simple: to have firefighters, company officers, and chief officers learn from this experience as I have. If something I share can influence you to be a safer firefighter, company officer, or chief officer, then I will have succeeded.

The Incident

We arrived on scene at 1927 hours.

Dispatch, Engine 31. We’re on scene. We have a working fire. I’ll give you more details in just a minute.

We pulled past the fire building and parked along the curb. We had medium to heavy smoke coming from the walk-up attic and blowing across Lincoln Avenue. On exiting the rig, I ensured that my crew was pulling the 1¾-inch crosslay as I called in an updated arrival report.

Dispatch 31 as Lincoln Command: We have a working attic fire in a 2½-story wood frame. Appears to be occupied. We need police for traffic. We need Lincoln shut down (photo 1).

(2) The rear deck was used to gain entry into the second floor. The deck above is the attic level, floor 3.<i> [Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department.]</i>
(2) The rear deck was used to gain entry into the second floor. The deck above is the attic level, floor 3. [Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department.]

I walked down the east gangway toward the rear of the house. As I approached the backyard, I could hear people screaming that kids were trapped in the attic, which was a residential unit. Milwaukee police officers were exiting the rear of the building and stated the same. They had tried to get up to the fire floor but the smoke hindered them. While we were making our way into the attic, I heard that the “missing children” were found safe at an adjacent home. The police discovered this fact and relayed it to the fire department.

Dispatch 31: Give me two extra med units; we’ve got a report of kids trapped.

Once in the backyard, I completed my initial exterior size-up. There were no flames showing, only smoke coming from the eaves, gutter lines, and attic windows. It was very evident that we had an attic fire; however, I could not discern its location.

I then followed a police officer into the second-floor rear of the building so he could show me where the attic stairs were. There was no smoke on the second floor. I went back outside and directed my company to bring the line up into the second floor from the rear deck (photo 2).

(3) The conditions at the time of the initial Mayday call. We were in the center of the attic (floor 3).
(3) The conditions at the time of the initial Mayday call. We were in the center of the attic (floor 3).

Back into the second floor, I walked up a few steps of the attic stairs and yelled out for possible victims. I didn’t get an answer.

My heavy equipment operator (HEO) called me on the radio:

Hey Chris, you ready for water?

Yeah! Charge that line.

John, my pipe man, and I began to mask up. I asked him if he had his hood on. He said he did. Our fire hoods were “short” and did not extend very far past the neckline, which I believe contributed to the burns on our necks. I went up the stairs first and was met with heavy smoke conditions and light to moderate heat in the attic. I kept close to the stairs and did a quick sweep of the immediate area for victims. John joined me with the charged hoseline. At this time, I could see no flames and no orange glow. I headed right, toward the rear of the home, to the south. I heard a chief call on the radio that there was good fire in the rear on the second floor. I had John open the pipe to bounce water off (strafe) the ceiling to cool and break up any heated gases. We advanced, searching for the seat of the fire.

31 to Operations: I need ventilation on the second floor. We’re working on the fire right now.

The smoke was thick, but the beam of my flashlight was still visible. The second-due engine asked if I wanted a second line in the attic. I told them to charge it and wait at the bottom of the attic stairs. We had yet to locate the seat of the fire, and the conditions at the time did not warrant a second line. The attic was tight and cramped with lots of stuff. I did not want to create a bottleneck in the event conditions worsened and we needed a clear path for rapid egress.

The Operations chief called:

31, I want to see this thing convert. You making some headway?

We need some ventilation on the second floor. Where is the bulk of the fire from where you are?

(No response.)

We got to the south end attic window. I could see out the window and noticed something burning on the exterior of the house. I believed this to be “drop down” on the building exterior and was not concerned about it. I chose not to ventilate this window because I still did not know where the seat of the fire was. Heat conditions had not increased; however, smoke conditions were getting worse.

We backed up to the north toward our point of entry, the attic stairwell.

31: We’re losing water pressure.

My HEO heard this transmission and gave me another 10 to 20 pounds of pressure. We had good pressure again.

31 to Operations: We’re hitting the fire right now. What does it look like from the outside?

(No response.)

The smoke was growing thick. I could barely see the beam of light coming off my flashlight. The heat remained steady. It was still a bread-and-butter attic fire.

Without warning, something came crashing down in the south end of the attic, the area in which we had just been working. Judging from past experience, I thought it sounded like a sheet of ceiling drywall that had let loose as opposed to a structural collapse of the roof or ceiling assembly. I made sure John was okay. Neither of us was struck.

At this time, the heat began to increase at a rate that did not cause me alarm. I still could not see any flames or orange glow. However, I suddenly heard the crackling of the fire behind me and to my left (east). I told John that the fire was behind us and directed him to back up and hit it with the line. We held this position.

Conditions Worsen

Within seconds, conditions took a turn for the worse, and the situation began to rapidly deteriorate. Events progressed extremely fast and were very intense. To put it simply, it got really hot really fast, faster and hotter than I had ever experienced before. The smoke became so thick that I could no longer see the light beam off my LED flashlight. I radioed the second-due engine company to bring up its hoseline. They did not hear the transmission. The heat kept increasing and was causing discomfort to my skin.

I was deeply concerned for our safety and the rapidly deteriorating conditions. It was pitch black in the attic and getting hotter. John and I communicated with each other about the high heat and getting out of the attic fast. We were on the same page. I made the call I never imagined I would make:

Engine 31: Mayday. Mayday. Mayday! 31! Mayday. Mayday!

I did not hear the response from Operations. Eleven seconds later, I made a second call:

31: Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

Again, I did not hear the response from Operations. That was my final radio transmission (photo 3).

Figure 1. Mayday and Bailing-Out Locations
Figure 1. Mayday and Bailing-Out Locations

I only had time to call the Maydays. I could not wait around for a response from Operations and then “go ahead with my Mayday.” It was just too hot! John and I communicated with each other that we were both “burning up” and that we had to get out and get out fast! We were now on our own. We went into survival mode.

I had kept myself oriented the entire time inside the attic. Our current position was the center of the attic, facing north (toward the front of building), to the immediate south of the attic stairwell (Figure 1). I did a quick left-hand sweep on the walls to find the stairwell opening. It took only a couple of seconds to complete this. By now, the heat was painful on my skin. I could not find the stairwell where I thought it would be. It was as if someone had closed the doors on us or knocked over a bunch of junk. I then swept the floor for the hoseline in hope of following it a short distance to the stairwell. The hoseline was looped over on itself and difficult to follow.

With our path of egress inaccessible and conditions now life-threatening, I grabbed John and told him we were heading toward the front of the building. I did not tell him to take or leave the hoseline, but he had the wherewithal to hold onto it. I grabbed John, and we crawled north. I decided to move toward the front of the building for two reasons: (1) to put distance between us and the bulk of fire and heat; and (2) based on experience and knowledge of local building construction, there would likely be exterior windows at the front of the attic, facing Lincoln Avenue. As we moved forward, the heat was not dissipating. We kept getting hotter.

Bailing Out

After moving an unknown distance, I spotted some daylight through the smoke. I found a window that had been vented. I grabbed John and shoved him into the window and told him to get out (photo 4). The window was 24 inches squared, and John is six feet tall and built like a firefighter. As he was working his way out the window, I waited. The heat kept getting worse and so did the pain on my skin. Through the smoke, I saw some light adjacent to John on the left. I shoved my hand toward it and found a second window. For a fraction of a second, I considered hanging by my hands or feet. This was not an option. I felt as if I was on my way to being burned alive. I dived out the window headfirst! My only thought was that it was cooler out there than in here. I did not hesitate to jump even for a second (photo 5).

(4) 1:30 after the initial Mayday call. John is hanging out the left window. Note the flames at the C-D corner at the gutter line.<i> </i>
(4) 1:30 after the initial Mayday call. John is hanging out the left window. Note the flames at the C-D corner at the gutter line.

I landed on my lower back and bottom, striking my head on the decking. My helmet saved my head but came off after the impact. Within seconds, I jumped up and threw my gloves off to stop my hands from burning. I then saw that John had fallen onto the porch (photo 6). I went over to check on him. I took off my face piece. While on the porch, John and I yelled down to Operations that we were missing our second firefighter, Jason. We did not know where he was. We waited several minutes while members cleared the ladder so we could climb down (photo 7). Once on the ground, I took off my turnout coat and flushed my skin with cold water from the pump panel on Engine 31.

(5) 1:40 after the initial Mayday call. I jumped out of the right window. You can see me falling mid-air, my leg pointing up. John is still at the window.
(5) 1:40 after the initial Mayday call. I jumped out of the right window. You can see me falling mid-air, my leg pointing up. John is still at the window.

Jason, my second firefighter, had been at the bottom of the attic stairs advancing line up for us. After we bailed out the windows, he was missing and unaccounted for. I thought for sure he was dead or severely burned. I paced around the fireground waiting to hear. Those five or so minutes of not knowing were the longest five minutes of my career. As his company officer, I was responsible for his safety and well-being. I was distraught at the possibility that I failed him as a company officer. Jason was found alive and well with only a minor knee injury. Relieved that he was safe, I walked over to the paramedics, lay down on the cot, and was loaded into the back of the transport unit.

(6) 2:02 after the initial Mayday. John falls from the left window. I am standing on the porch, right side; I do not have a helmet on.
(6) 2:02 after the initial Mayday. John falls from the left window. I am standing on the porch, right side; I do not have a helmet on.

Postincident Analysis

Again, my goal in sharing this experience is simple. I want members of the fire service to learn from my experience as I have. If this information can motivate you to be a safer firefighter, company officer, or chief officer, I will have succeeded.

Challenges I Faced

  • Rapid heat buildup. I was unable to overcome the extremely rapid buildup of heat. High heat was the big game changer for me in this fire. By the time the progression of heat buildup caught my attention to the time I felt my skin burning was only a matter of seconds. That feeling on your skin can preclude most other concerns you may have. You are not able to take your time and follow some methodical process for self-rescue or to stand your ground and await help. Human survival instincts kick in and can become overpowering. After calling my Maydays, I tried to find the attic stairs. Without the extreme heat, I am confident I would have found them by conducting a more thorough and timely search. The same applies to trying to follow the hoseline out to safety.
  • Lack of ventilation. The lack of adequate ventilation in the attic presented a significant challenge for us. This was further compounded by my failure to properly read the fire. While I was in the attic searching for the seat of the fire, unbeknownst to me the fire was inside the knee walls and attic ridge space. We were essentially inside a convection oven. Two windows were broken out on the north end of the attic. This was not sufficient to vent the void spaces. The void spaces were vented once the ceiling drywall collapsed onto the attic floor. All that built-up heat descended into the attic, right on top of us. Two vented windows were behind us. We were now caught between the heat source and the vent opening; we were directly in a flow path. With rapid topside ventilation, the attic void spaces would have vented into the atmosphere, pulling in fresh air from the two vented front attic windows. A stable environment would have ensued, and we would have been able to confine and likely extinguish the fire with a single handline. Topside ventilation was completed by a later-arriving truck company, but we had bailed out by then.

A lesson that relates to the previous challenge I want to drive home is specific to truck companies: the importance of topside ventilation in walk-up attic fires, especially when victims are trapped. Many would argue that the truck company’s number-one incident priority is victim rescue. I disagree, as many do. The truck company’s number-one incident priority must be to support the first-in engine company and the efforts to get the first hoseline to the seat of the fire for extinguishment. When the fire goes out, things get better. At this fire, the truck company was engaged in rescue while John and I were in the attic searching for the fire’s location.

(7) 2:47 after the initial Mayday call. Note the heavy fire erupting from the rear of the structure; this was 45 seconds after we were both out of the attic. John and I are still on the front porch.
(7) 2:47 after the initial Mayday call. Note the heavy fire erupting from the rear of the structure; this was 45 seconds after we were both out of the attic. John and I are still on the front porch.

Victims trapped in an attic fire will have an increased survivability profile as a result of the rapid release of heat, smoke, and toxic gases. Engine companies will then be able to get water on the fire faster, further increasing the victim survivability profile. At attic fires with occupants trapped, the first-in truck company needs to make rapid topside ventilation-that is, support the first-in engine company, its number-one priority.

  • Radio communication challenges. They were the results of circumstance and equipment shortfalls. I had my handheld radio stowed in the breast pocket of my coat. I did not have a corded mic. I’m sure I missed radio transmissions while the radio was in my breast pocket. I had no choice but to hold the radio in my hand. This presented its own challenges while I was assisting with the hoseline and conducting a search. I am sure I missed transmissions when my arm was extended or down on the floor. The department was in the process of upgrading our radio system prior to this fire. However, it was not fully implemented at the time.
  • First line stretch. We were faced with a challenging hose stretch. There were many turns and bends in the line. We needed help with the stretch. A clean hose stretch will ease advancement into the structure once the line is charged. Second- and third-in engine companies must delay stretching backup lines before the first line is in place. (I have been guilty of this myself in the past.) Later-arriving engine companies must help ensure the initial attack line gets stretched properly and readied for advancement before backup lines are even pulled. There’s that old saying, “The fire will go as the first line goes.” In this case, there was a loop in the hoseline such that we could not follow it out to safety. It could have been the result of too much hose being pushed from below or our changing positions when advancing the hose, since the attic stairs were in the center of the building and we had advanced all the way to the rear of the structure and had to make our way back toward the attic stairs (point of entry).

Lessons Learned

  • If you are thinking about calling a Mayday, you should already be calling one. I’ve heard that before. It was a matter of seconds from the time I thought that the fire was not going the way I wanted it to go until the point when I knew we were in trouble and needed to get out fast. Those seconds felt like an eternity. There was trepidation in calling my Mayday.
  • I don’t want to overreact; I don’t want to create chaos where there isn’t any. These thoughts were running through my head. For a moment, it felt surreal. I wasn’t in denial, though.
  • This can’t be happening to me! I only read about this happening to other firefighters. Stuff like this happens only in big cities like New York. I called my first Mayday approximately five minutes after arriving in the attic. In hindsight, the fire conditions I experienced deteriorated so fast that I believe that calling a Mayday 10 or so seconds sooner would have made little or no difference.
  • Direct communication between the company officer and the nozzle firefighter. The importance of direct communications between a company officer and the nozzle firefighter cannot be overstressed. Nozzle firefighters need to keep their officer informed of what they see and hear, especially when the boss is behind or behind and off to the side. The same rings true for company officers. The nozzle firefighter may be feeling more heat than the officer. If officers are not receiving communications from their nozzle firefighter, they need to start asking questions. Officer and firefighter must be on the same page at all times during the firefight. That will only happen with clear, concise two-way communications.

Days after the fire, I spoke with John. Some of what he told me came as a total surprise. He told me that as we made our initial advancement toward the rear of the attic, he saw some fire coming from a small door in the west knee wall. When he opened it up, there was an “instant flashover” that blew out and engulfed him in fire. He opened the nozzle momentarily, but the flames and burns dazed him. He believed this was when he received the majority of his severe burns.

(8) The fire building, a 21⁄2-story dwelling. The half-story is a walk-up, occupied attic, floor 3. [Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department.]
(8) The fire building, a 21⁄2-story dwelling. The half-story is a walk-up, occupied attic, floor 3. [Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department.]

He made no mention of this while we were working in the attic. I did not inquire as to how John was doing until after the ceiling drywall collapsed. John also told me that he lost water pressure in the hose several times. He told me that once while we were in the attic. I radioed Operations about the loss of pressure. My HEO heard the call and gave us more pressure. We were back in business. It was my understanding that our water problems were over. I failed to follow up with John to ensure that we had continual, adequate water pressure. As stated earlier, officer and firefighter must be on the same page at all times during the firefight, and the only way to do that is with clear, concise two-way communications.

  • Not recognizing the unique building characteristics during an exterior size-up. This error can lead to unforeseen consequences later in the incident. In this case, the front of the fire building was clearly a 21⁄2-story building. I called it in as such on arrival. In Milwaukee, we consider a walk-up, livable attic space to be a half-story (floor 3) (photo 8).

I failed to recognize that the lot the building was built on sloped upward as it went back. From the backyard, the home looked like a two-story building. There was a rear deck off the second floor; however, it was much closer to the ground than the front porch was because of the upward slope in the lot (photo 2). When I entered the home off the rear porch, I believed that I was on the first floor. When I got up to the attic level, I believed I was now on the second floor. I began to look for the attic stairs. I was not the only one thrown off by this. While in the attic, I heard an exterior officer radio that there was “good fire coming from the rear second floor.” It was actually coming from the attic (floor 3). I called twice for “ventilation on the second floor.”

What do we usually do for second-floor ventilation? Break out windows. Two broken front attic windows did not provide adequate ventilation for this fire. I speculate people keyed in on my multiple requests for ventilation on the second floor and the transmission that there was good fire coming from the rear second floor.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and surmise that this oversight on my part and that of others played a role in delaying topside ventilation. I believe that had I called for vertical ventilation or a hole in the roof, topside ventilation likely would have occurred sooner. In the end, would faster topside ventilation have changed the outcome of this fire? I will never know for sure.

  • Thermal imaging camera. It would have been beneficial in helping locate the fire, but I did not have one with me.

Sound Practices Reinforced

  • Orientation. The importance of maintaining correct orientation within a fire building will benefit you most when conditions rapidly deteriorate or your thermal imaging camera fails. Had I become disoriented and gotten turned around, thus delaying my egress, we would have suffered life-threatening burns or been overtaken by high heat.
  • Construction. A sound knowledge of principles of building construction, especially construction features and building layouts unique to your response areas, will make you a safer and more effective firefighter, company officer, or chief officer.
  • Remaining calm. Panic kills. The ability to maintain a cool head as a result of experience and training will greatly increase your chances of survival and escape.
  • Live fire, high heat firefighter survival training. I credit the “Rapid Intervention Team Rescue Technician” course (formerly “RIT Under Fire”) by the Illinois Fire Service Institute with giving me the knowledge, skills, and abilities to help me survive my close call. This training was invaluable in preparing me to work in extreme heat, physically demanding environments.
  • Experience. Having years of experience fighting fires and responding to emergencies will always give you that extra edge when you end up in a tough situation, whether it be a structure fire or an emergency medical call. In the end, a combination of fire experience and realistic training will provide you with your best chances of surviving a close-call incident.

John and I were thankful there was a second-floor front porch. We fell 12 feet, one inch onto that porch instead of 25 feet down to the concrete sidewalk.

I was on injury leave for eight weeks. My injuries included a fractured pelvis and sacrum; superficial burns to my upper chest, arms, and neck; and partial thickness burns on my neck. John was off for about 16 weeks. His injuries included multiple blunt injuries from the fall (no broken bones though) and significant burns including a mix of partial and full-thickness circumferential burns on his neck and both of his wrists.

As I said during the fire and have said many times since, “I never thought it would happen to me.” Well, it did happen to me, and when I least expected it-fighting a fire in a single-family residential dwelling. Your life can change in seconds. You can never know when, but you darn well should be prepared for it!

CHRISTOPHER J. SCHUTTE has served with the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department for the past 21 years. Previously, he was a paid on-call firefighter for the Mukwonago (WI) Fire Department. He is the captain assigned to Truck 1 and is the Special Teams director for the Dive Rescue Team. He was a lead instructor at the Milwaukee Training Academy. He has an associate degree in fire science and is a state-certified Wisconsin fire service instructor.

Christopher J. Schutte will present “Trapped! Surviving a Mayday” on Friday, April 22, 8:30 a.m.-10:15 a.m. at FDIC International 2016 in Indianapolis.

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